Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Natural History Museum: plans to transform the grounds

Bee (Lasioglossum sp.)
on Harebell
Image: R. Clark
This summer, the Natural History Museum (NHM) announced their intention to develop their grounds and they chose a design which would impact upon the much-loved Wildlife Garden. Since then, broadcast, print and social media have been buzzing with opinions on the proposal, both for and against. Here's how the BBC covered the story, here it is in Horticulture Week, in The Guardian here and here, and here's the Daily Mail's take

Regular News & Views readers will be well aware of how BSBI responds to issues like this - as a scientific society, we try to find out the facts, we look for any likely impacts on the British and Irish flora and we share this information with you, along with links to opinion pieces for and against, so that you can make up your own mind.

So we were delighted when Justin Morris, NHM's Director of Public Engagement, invited BSBI and other organisations along to a briefing about the proposal, which NHM hopes will "create more public space, improve the visitor experience and provide much greater connectivity to the surrounding urban realm and into the Museum buildings. The proposal will also engage a far greater proportion of visitors with the Museum’s core narratives of evolution, biodiversity and sustainability. In particular a far greater area than is currently the case will be given over to exploring the importance of biodiversity, not least in an urban environment, and why this is important for the future of human society".


Caterpillar of Cinnabar Moth
on Ragwort
Image: R. Clark
We accepted Justin's invitation and ecologist Ryan Clark (who sits on BSBI's Meetings & Communications Committee) went along to the briefing last Wednesday. Here is his report: 

"NHM's argument in favour of the development is based on the conviction that something must be done to increase public engagement. They point out that very few people who are not naturalists already actually visit the Wildlife Garden, and I must admit that I don’t very often see young children in there engaging with wildlife.

"The plans we were shown were slightly different to the architects' and designers' plans shown here, here and here, but NHM are going to circulate some Powerpoint slides and briefing notes next week. I'll let you know when these arrive but for now, here's a summary from the briefing:

Tree Bee (Bombus hypnorum)
queen on Hairy Violet
Image: R. Clark
"The idea is to improve flow from the front steps area up to the Darwin Centre area. The gates in the corner of the Wildlife Garden backing onto Queens Gate will also be opened as a new entry point into the site. To cope with changes in height, and so they don’t have to adjust the height of the woodland (!) NHM plans to build a retaining wall. This will have a biodiversity narrative incorporated into it and will be around 5 ft at its highest point.

"From the front steps going west, there will be a grassland meadow ‘vista’ area which NHM say will include chalk, neutral and wet grasslands (I don't have any details yet on how they will manage that!)
This will lead to the larger pond which will be lowered (architects' plans show it as circular but we were assured this was incorrect.)
Gallery-like platforms will extend above the larger pond and will feature specimens of crops and crop wild relatives, along with garden plants which benefit wildlife.
The upper smaller pond will be retained in its current state.
The design includes an ‘edge path’ through some open woodland containing fruit trees. The idea here is to create familiarity for British visitors and offer a taste of British culture to the 60% of the museum's visitors who come from abroad.
The current woodland area will be retained and there will also be open/bare areas for plants and invertebrates.
The butterfly house will be moved to near the Darwin Centre and an outdoor covered space near the amphitheatre steps will be created, expanding this area's potential for educational use. This will be large enough to accommodate a class of students. Inside the museum, exhibits will be rearranged so that this side of the museum is more biodiversity (especially British biodiversity) based".

Bee Orchid
Image: R. Clark
Thanks to Ryan for these notes from the briefing - for a very different slant, News & Views readers may also want to take a look at this opinion piece by respected naturalist and BSBI member Peter Marren, who also attended the briefing. 

So, to follow up Peter's comments, what about the plants and invertebrates which currently use the Wildlife Garden? As this article in The Telegraph last spring points out, more than 2,600 species have been recorded there, including 300 species of plants, including Cowslip, Bluebell and Bee Orchid. 

Many people have taken to Facebook and Twitter in recent days to point out the irony of a Wildlife Garden which supports such rich biodiversity being "destroyed" to facilitate greater public engagement with biodiversity!

Ryan, however, points out that "some, but not all, of the habitats will be lost, but it's worth noting that most of the 2,500 species recorded are invertebrates that have flown into the traps from the nearby Royal Parks - they aren't actually supported by the Wildlife Garden. It sounds as though NHM plans to retain as many habitats as possible which support biodiversity and they obviously hope that the new design will help people engage more effectively with the revamped Wildlife Garden. The current plans don't look as if they will increase the biodiversity of the site, but this may change following the consultation process, so it’s important that we all make our thoughts known on these initial plans."

Green Shield Bug on Ivy flowers
Image: R. Clark 
BSBI President Ian Denholm said “A great deal of work has gone into maximising the wildlife and educational value of the existing garden, and it is disappointing to read that much of this effort is threatened by plans to restructure the grounds adjacent to Cromwell Road. While acknowledging the benefits of improving access to collections and exhibits within the NHM, one wonders whether there isn’t a compromise that would retain the diversity of habitats currently present while making better use of entry and exit points at the western end of the building – a win-win scenario that would complement plans for redevelopments elsewhere on the site”.

We'll keep you posted as we hear more on these proposals - Ryan says that there will be a follow-up meeting at the NHM early in November. Justin Morris is keen to know what BSBI members think, so we'd like to go back to that meeting with a summary of your initial responses to the proposals (for or against!). 

If you would like to comment on what you've heard so far, please leave a comment below or send me an email if you would prefer to comment out of the public eye. Or you can email the NHM direct at this address: groundsproject@nhm.ac.uk - don't forget to mention that you are a BSBI member!